Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart

Article excerpt

Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart. By Felicity Allen. Shades of Blue and Gray Series. (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, c. 1999. Pp. xxii, 809. $34.95, ISBN 0-8262-1219-0.)

Only an intrepid biographer would undertake a life of Jefferson Davis--it is so long, full, and controversial. There is his public career--Army officer and hero of the Mexican War, congressman, secretary of war, and senator of the United States, and president of the Confederate States--and then there are the twenty-four years he lived after the Civil War. Moreover, his acquaintances numbered almost every prominent person of his time, and he maintained close relationships with his numerous family and that of his wife. Finally, Davis's personality defies easy characterization. Given these daunting obstacles, Felicity Allen has managed to master both the details and the larger issues in order to produce a well-researched and thoughtful biography.

One of a number of biographers attracted to the challenge of late, Allen has found what she considers to be the essence of Davis in his devotion to religious principles and southern chivalric ideals. Although the Davises attended church in Washington and had as a close friend the chaplain of the Congress, Davis only formally joined a church in 1862, when he became a member of St, Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond. The evidence is not convincing that religion played a dominant role in his earlier life. The author also strenuously defends Davis's positions on slavery and state rights. Allen reports his public and private statements accurately, but she will win few converts to Davis's legalistic stance on either subject. That he was a stalwart defender of southern chivalry is undeniable.

The author does not gloss over the sometimes troubled state of Davis's second marriage (his first bride Sarah, daughter of Zachary Taylor, died soon after their wedding in 1835). Carol Bleser's 1998 presidential address to the Southern Historical Association and subsequent article [Journal of Southern History, LXV (February 1999), 3-40] have invited historians to assess Davis as husband. …

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